River-based exchange systems and the early medieval economy of north-western Europe

By now it is clear that ideas on the early medieval economy of Europe cannot be based on modern conceptions of the 'economy' as a separate field of society run by autonomous agents in search of maximizing gains. Research all over Europe accepts that all practices related to production, exchange and other activities considered 'economic' in the early Middle Ages were embedded in social relations and depended on conceptions of 'value' quite different from our modern ones, which more often than not originated from the imagined world. Moreover 'economic' practices in the past, and even in modern societies were intimately related to moral conceptions, at times in total opposition to our idea of rational economic behaviour. Finally, our modern (quite materialistic) thoughts also suggest that exchange is/should be ruled by exchanging items for items. Recent research however suggests that exchange could also have been organised along debt/credit relations, involving social and moral aspects, thus including the exchange of non-material 'items'.

In this paper I will start to show the recent results of the excavations of a riverine settlement along the Rhine River not far from its mouth in the North Sea: Oegstgeest. The settlement which at first sight is just a rural settlement, and it will to a large extent have been one, presents a number of surprising elements, some of which have also been observed in other settlements along the lower Rhine River. It is quite a challenge to interpret the settlement and its surprising elements as such and in terms of exchange systems of the late sixth to early eighth centuries.

To try so I focus on one element, but an important one: the presence of quite a number of small silver coins, so-called sceattas, which were found in substantial numbers in those riverine settlements. There is a lively debate on this type of coins found in great numbers in England and the Netherlands. Because of this they are often considered as evidence for a developing monetary economy in the early eighth century. The distribution patterns however allow another interpretation, an interpretation that forces us to reconsider the organisation of the most important exchange networks in continental north-western Europe. It also invites us to reconsider the status of the most important agents in this system: the nearly invisible traders and their power base.

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